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  • Max Stearns

The McCain Moment

[Note to readers: Very shortly after posting this, I supplemented with a brief follow up post, available here, titled "About Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski." Please take a look.]

Here is the story that one imagines John McCain hopes will be told: Thanks to the remarkable, contrary to medical advice, persistence of maverick Senator (R. AZ.) John McCain, we have narrowly averted a disastrous ACA repeal with no genuine possibility of replacement. Despite any assurances that the Republican Senate leaders sought from their House counterparts, and despite any assurances that might have been forthcoming, there’s little doubt that if the skinny ACA repeal had passed the Senate and emerged the best option in the House, it would have landed on Donald Trump’s desk and been signed into law.

There is good reason to be skeptical of any political commitments of the sort the Republican Senate leaders were seeking. Remember, after all, just how the ACA initially passed. The law was enacted back when the Senate rules required a supermajority of 60 votes to do ordinary business, and the Senate was, once more, closely divided. The 60th vote was to come from Arlen Spector, a long-time Republican Senator, who switched parties, emerging a Democrat. A nearly identical bill to the one the Senate ultimately passed had been announced Dead on Arrival (“DOA”) when it emerged from the House. But in politics such claims must be taken with a grain of salt. It was DOA until Ted Kennedy, who had been suffering a terminal illness, died, leaving an interim Democratic appointee before the stunning electoral victory of Scott Brown, the first Republican Senator elected in Massachusetts in 38 years. Brown claimed that his swearing in was delayed by two weeks to let the ACA, the one previously declared DOA, pass onto President Obama’s desk for signature. See here. McCain is certainly right to imagine that passing the skinny ACA repeal was the political equivalent of Russian roulette.

McCain returned to the Senate this week to great fanfare after receiving a horrible medical diagnosis, one that leaves little prospect of long term survival. His one-time primary opponent, a virtual human vulture, Dr. Kelli Ward, is ready to swoop in and consume the remains, with no need to await its demise. See here. Frankly, it is hard to imagine a more despicable display, especially from one who markets herself as a physician (a graduate of the West Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine to be precise) and a Christian.

McCain was never a particularly inspiring speaker. Even so, his much anticipated Tuesday speech held some memorable moments (the full text is here). Here are my favorites:

“[Our deliberations] are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.

“Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’

“We’re getting nothing done. . . . All we’ve managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn’t very popular when we started trying to get rid of it.

“The Obama administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced through Congress without any opposition support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare. And we shouldn’t do the same with ours.

“Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the President’s subordinates. We are his equal!"

McCain also included characteristic moments of self-deprecation:

Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.

“I’m going home for a while to treat my illness. I have every intention of returning here and giving many of you cause to regret all the nice things you said about me.”

And there was one moment that to me seemed curious, given that he really has no one left to answer to:

“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood."

The true bombastic loudmouths are those who propped up this administration, none more so than Donald Trump himself. At this point, why not just come out and say it? (We can hold aside, for now, Anthony Scaramucci, who, by comparison, has since revealed the unique capacity to make Trump appear ever-so-slightly less out of control, see here).

There is some irony to the claim that McCain’s final vote saved the ACA from repeal. Without having returned to Washington to vote in favor of allowing the bill to get to the floor for debate and amendment, there would have been no need for his final heroic rescue vote. Indeed, his procedural vote was essential to allowing Pence break the tie, bringing the House bill to the Senate floor. See here. One might ask: Is it heroic to save a drowning man having pushed him into the lake?

We were assured that this procedural vote was just that. And perhaps McCain truly believed it. Maybe he thought that there would emerge a genuine effort at bipartisanship, one that would improve Obamacare, rather than simply allowing Trump finally earn a legislative notch on his ever-widening presidential belt. Perhaps McCain even thought he had the capacity to accomplish just that, come in and get people to realize, well, life is too short. And yet, despite our personal sympathy for John McCain, the possibility of such bipartisanship seems a fantasy. So, having created a serious risk of passing a disastrous plan, McCain swooped back in, with a final vote that disallowed that bill to pass. Even so, McCain’s negative vote, producing a 51-49 defeat, prevented skinny ACA repeal from a tie, which Pence would have broken in favor of passage. See here.

McCain began his Tuesday speech with this:

“Mr. President:

“I’ve stood in this place many times and addressed as president many presiding officers. I have been so addressed when I have sat in that chair, as close as I will ever be to a presidency."

True. John McCain will not be President. And although his legacy is mixed, it remains one for which truly deserves to be proud. The ACA repeal defeat is just one piece in a longer, more complicated story. Losing a presidential election is no great shame. John McCain is in some terrific company. Being President can be noble, raising the man (and one soon hopes a woman) to the occasion, bringing inspiration to so many who have lost hope, overcoming great challenge or tragedy, even while too often suffering one’s own. But it isn’t always thus. The presidency can also prove the tragic beginning of the end for someone so consumed with his sense of self worth that every slight, every setback, becomes personal, and the personal eclipses all else. In those moments, the greater legacy belongs not to the man holding the office, but to those who resist.

John McCain should not be remembered for having lost an election or for having defeated one disastrous bill. He should be remembered for a long and distinguished career, one that began after he served his country in the most profound and selfless of ways. See here. To be clear, contrary to candidate Trump's despicable claim, John McCain is not a hero because he was caught. See here. He is a hero because he chose, despite repeated torture, not to be released unless and until he was joined in doing so by his fellow POWs.

Despite his reputation as a political maverick, McCain’s personal bravery seemed more profound. His selection of Sara Palin as a running mate, caving to his party's hard right, was a turning point in the decline of civil discourse and in the general expectation that a precondition to being nominated to national office is some basic level of competence and knowledge. But this mistake should not detract from McCain’s legacy of decency, a man willing to work with others, to compromise, to reach across the aisle, and to prioritize serving his nation above serving himself.

We don’t have to always agree with a public servant to honor and admire him. We too often describe leaders as patriots; not so with John McCain. He truly deserves the accolade. I wish both him and his family well.

As for the Democrats, this was a narrow escape, but any celebration is woefully premature. Don’t forget, there’s still a vulture waiting in the wings.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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